|POLITICAL SCENE||December 1998|
As 1998 draws to a close, so does the term of the 105th Congress. With a Democrat in the White House and Republicans running Congress, fewer bills were enacted during the past two years than in any previous congressional session in modern times. Even so, this Congress will certainly be remembered for passing the first balanced budget in a quarter century. In 1997, Congress passed the first tax cut of any significance since 1981 and took the first steps toward overhauling Medicare. Rapid growth in entitlement programs such as Medicare, combined with interest payments on the national debt, is squeezing the discretionary funds for science R&D (and other non entitlement programs) into an ever thinner slice of the federal budget pie.
The short list
During the 1997 session, two key programs of concern to geoscientists were reauthorized - the U.S. Geological Survey's (USGS) National Geologic Mapping Program and the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program. Just before adjourning this year, Congress passed a bill that establishes a commission on improving opportunities in science and engineering for women, minorities, and people with disabilities (p. 11), and President Clinton signed it into law.
Legislation to implement two intellectual property treaties also passed in the closing days, but only after a House-passed provision establishing new legal protections for digital databases was removed. Designed to combat electronic data piracy, the database provision had been a major point of contention for scientists, librarians, and others concerned about the effect it might have on their access to scientific data. House and Senate leaders have vowed to act on a stand-alone database bill early in the next Congress.
Education was a top priority for Republicans and Democrats alike. Much of the debate focused on the appropriate role of the federal government. This September, the House voted to consolidate 31 separate federal education programs into a single block grant to the states. Included among them was the Eisenhower Professional Development Program, which provides targeted support for science and math teachers to acquire additional professional training. Because a number of states already apply for waivers to divert Eisenhower funds away from science and math training, the scientific community feared that many states would seek to shift their block grant monies away from this national need. Efforts to dismantle this program - already attempted by the previous Congress (1995-96) - were not successful, however. The House bill died in the Senate, and appropriators provided full funding.
Increased Funding for Science
The historic balanced budget presented Congress with the novel problem of where to spend the surplus. Although House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) made several speeches about investing the surplus in additional support for research, the winning issues that emerged were tax cuts and saving social security. In this year's budget request, President Clinton proposed using money from an anticipated tobacco settlement to pay for increased science spending. Although the settlement never came about, Congress found other ways to come up with money for new investments in research. A year ago, the science and engineering community made a joint plea for a 7-percent increase for civilian research in the fiscal year (FY) 1999 budget. When the dust settled and FY 1999 appropriations bills passed this fall, Congress and the president had delivered a 6-percent increase for civilian research. The National Science Foundation's research account received nearly a 9-percent increase, and science accounts in the Department of Energy went up 8 percent. All paled in comparison, however, to the 15-percent increase won for the National Institutes of Health, illustrating that biomedical research continues to command the greatest support in Congress.
The USGS received a 5-percent increase, the bulk of which went to the Biological Resources and Water Resources divisions. Three years after being incorporated into the USGS, the biological division has been restored to the funding levels it had when it was an independent bureau at the Department of the Interior. Funding for NASA's Earth Science Enterprise (formerly Mission to Planet Earth) was nearly flat.
Climate change emerged as the most hotly debated environmental issue, both before and after the administration signed the Kyoto Protocol in December 1997. Before Kyoto, a nearly unanimous Senate resolution opposed any climate change agreement that did not include emissions caps for developing countries. Because the Kyoto agreement stopped short of such caps, the administration has yet to present the treaty to the Senate for ratification and does not plan to do so until subsequent negotiations can include such provisions. After Kyoto, many congressional committees held hearings on all aspects of the climate change debate, with the largest number focused on estimates of the economic impact of the treaty. Many in Congress accused the administration of underestimating costs and using back-door actions to win a de facto implementation of the treaty without any votes.
In part because so much attention was paid to climate change, not one
major environmental bill passed this Congress. High-priority reauthorizations
such as Superfund and the Clean Water Act never made it out of their committees.
Mining law reform - a constant theme in recent Congresses - languished
untouched behind committee doors as well.
On the energy side, Congress successfully blocked new regulations on oil and gas royalty collection but failed to pass legislation to provide relief for marginal well production in the wake of record low oil prices. In the Senate, legislation to build an interim storage facility for high-level nuclear waste adjacent to the proposed permanent repository site at Yucca Mountain fell two votes shy of the two-thirds supermajority necessary to override a promised presidential veto. With the Senate bill stopped, the House canceled further action on its version.
The 105th Congress left a host of environmental and resource issues unresolved, and the 106th Congress already has its work cut out for it. Despite the budget surplus, spending caps put in place by the balanced budget agreement are tighter in FY 2000 than they were for FY 1999, meaning less money will be available for investment in science programs. In advocating continued support for geoscience priorities, our profession has its work cut out for it as well.
AGI Director of Government Affairs
For additional information on any of these issues, please visit the American Geological Institute's web site at <http://www.agiweb.org>.